I've been thinking a lot lately about Final Fantasy 7, not the least reason because I've decided to replay it over Christmas holidays.
I like Final Fantasy 7. It was one of the first games I played on my Playstation system, and I even somehow came into possession of their marketing "first chapter demo" discs at the time, which meant that I anticipated the game's release with a good deal of happy tension and tenterhooks. (And that was back when demo discs were, themselves, fairly new and exciting things to be in possession of.) I remember being stunned by the epic size of the game -- three whole CD discs!! -- and while I couldn't make heads or tails of the plot the first time through (due to the a combination of the translation and the fact that I wasn't used to the concept of unreliable protagonists), I replayed the game often enough and read enough fanfic online to get a good feel for the game. To this day, I remember it fondly as a classic.
It also has some Unfortunate Implications when it comes to its female characters.
Back in June, I participated in Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project to talk about women in gaming and the tropes attached to them. And in September, she set up a survey page for "Damsels in Distress" in order to ensure she didn't miss anything interesting prior to creating her video. And if you're going to talk to people about women in video games who end up in a position of distress and/or die at the hands of a villain, it's pretty much inevitable that someone is going to bring up Aeris Gainsborough from FF7 who dies, at the end of Disc 1, at the hands of the main villain Sephiroth. And who, despite a lot of Urban Legends of Zelda floating about in the day, really could not be brought back to life and restored to your party, despite being a playable character and potential love interest up to the point of her death.
Some players in the comments for Sarkeesian's Kickstarter protested that Aeris should not be included in the ranks of the Obviously Fridged, because her death was something that she proactively accepted as part of her (ultimately successful) plan to save the planet, and that a Heroic Sacrifice shouldn't be classified as a Damsel in Distress just because the hero in question is female. And I'm not unsympathetic to that viewpoint.
But! (And you knew there would be a but.)
I have written in the past that the value of the Bechdel test isn't to say whether a particular movie is bad or not, because there is usually a good in-universe reason for why the movie doesn't pass the test. A movie is not bad just because, for example, it features a strong woman who has crash-landed on a prison planet for violent men. But the movie still matters, from a Bechdel test perspective, because it joins the ranks of all the other movies that don't pass the test. And when that pile represents, say, 90% of all movies ever made ever then we have a problem.
One of the issues with the Damsel in Distress trope isn't that it's only confined to the obvious stuff where your Player Character's helpless girlfriend has been kidnapped by Satan and will be gratuitously raped every time you have to restart a level. Yes, those games represent a problem. But there's also a more subtle issue in the more thoughtful games, and we deserve the chance to look at the larger picture as it pertains to women in all video games. A commenter wrote on Anita's project at the time something that stuck with me, and since I can't find it to quote directly, I will paraphrase it here:
[Extremely Rough Paraphrase] The value of the Damsel in Distress is looking at the bigger picture. If every/many/most games contain a distressed or killed female character, then we have a social problem which is larger than any individual game. Possibly male writers think that male gamers won't accept a female character if she's not endangered at some point, or possibly they think that male gamers need an endangered or dead female character to motivate them sufficiently for rescue or revenge.
In the case of Aeris, I ask for a memory refresher: how many male player characters in FF7 were killed and permanently removed from the party? How many male player characters in FF7 were captured and threatened with rape? How many male non-player characters were motivating factors for the female player characters (in contrast to Marlene for Barrett, Shera for Cid, etc.)? It would seem that there's a role there for women -- as victims to be protected or revenged -- that isn't imposed on the men. That doesn't make the game bad or the women characters weak, but it's something worth talking about. [/Extremely Rough Paraphrase]
That comment, which I have reproduced very poorly, stuck with me and has been niggling at my memory since I started replaying Final Fantasy 7 over my break. So let's look at the female characters of FF7 (and note that I will be sticking to the original game and not the eighty-million add-on properties which for the most part inject more nuance into the characters).
Aeris Gainsborough. Major playable character, Aeris is the Staff Chick of the group and physically weak enough that most people never see the majority of her Limit Breaks. She acts as a Default Love Interest for the "main" playable character Cloud Strife, and players have to actively work to earn alternative love interest scenes with Tifa, Yuffie, or Barret at the Gold Saucer "date night" sequence. Aeris is motivated by a desire to learn about her mysterious heritage bequeathed to her by her mother Ifalna. Later, she seeks to save the planet even at the cost of her own life. She is killed by the villain, motivating Cloud to seek revenge. Over the course of the game she may or may not have been threatened with rape, depending on how you interpret Hojo's intentions, in this scene, and was definitely threatened with rape in this scene at Don Corneo's mansion.
Breakdown: Dead, Almost Raped, Revenge Motivator.
Tifa Lockheart. Major playable character, Tifa is the Childhood Friend of Cloud Strife. She acts as the Secondary Love Interest after Aeris dies. She is portrayed as a competent fighter and strong female character in her own right, but makes the decision to immediately leave the party in order to nurse Cloud back to health when he is removed from the party and believed to have permanent brain damaged. This decision is noteworthy since Tifa announces she doesn't "care about anything else" except to be "by his side", despite the fact that the quest at this point is to literally save the world from total destruction -- if the party isn't strong enough as a group to accomplish this, Cloud will die in a fiery armageddon along with everyone else on the planet. Like Aeris, she faces the threat of rape while in Don Corneo's mansion.
Breakdown: Caretaker, Almost Raped.
Yuffie Kisaragi. Major playable character, Yuffie is a hidden character, a ninja, a thief, and a distant alternative love interest for Cloud. (Note that all female playable characters in this game are potential love interests.) Yuffie's optional side-quest climaxes in her being tied up and threatened with rape.
Breakdown: Almost Raped.
Which leads me to:
Elena. The only female member of the recurring bad guy squad, Elena is the newest member of the team and therefore serves as a sort of comic relief character in contrast to her more serious male colleagues. She largely appears to be motivated by a rather unprofessional crush on her boss, Tseng. Her colleagues are forced to team up with the player in order to rescue Elena (and Yuffie) from rape.
Breakdown: Almost Raped.
Marlene Wallace. Marlene is the adopted daughter of major playable character Barret, and serves largely as his motivating factor for wanting to save the planet. Marlene's mother, Eleanor, and Barret's wife, Myrna, were both killed prior to the start of the game in the military action which wiped out much of their hometown. Over the course of the game, Marlene's life is threatened by her biological father, who wants to reunite Marlene with Eleanor in the afterlife.
Breakdown: Almost Killed, Protection Motivator.
Marlene shares her position as Motivating Factor for Barret with:
Jessie. Jessie is the only female member of Barret's terrorist organization, AVALANCHE. She dies very early in the game, along with co-members Biggs and Wedge, and the three remain revenge motivations for Barret. Jessie is interesting from a strong female character standpoint because she is the "brainy" member of the group -- building the bombs and forging their electronic identifications -- but she also reveals to Cloud in optional conversation that she mostly follows the instructions the computer gives her, and the electronic identification she creates for Cloud is faulty and sets off an escape action sequence. In a nutshell, Jessie would appear to be competent but not too competent. For no reason other than because I like it, here is a fan-pic of Jessie by Shideh.
Breakdown: Dead, Revenge Motivator.
Shera. Shera is a non-playable character who serves as a scientist on the Shinra rocket program, and who lives in a abusive relationship with playable character Cid Highwind. Cid is cruel to Shera because ... okay, this is complicated. Cid was the pilot selected for the rocket program. Shera was (correctly, we find much later) convinced that there was a fault on-board the ship which, if left uncorrected, would endanger both the pilot and the mission. Cid didn't believe the fault existed and refused to give her time to correct it, choosing instead to initiate the launch. Shera remained on-site working to correct the flaw, and Cid was forced to choose between going ahead with the launch (in which case Shera would be killed) or aborting the launch (in which case the mission would be a failure). Cid chose not to kill Shera, and lost his dream of going into outer space. Shera then submitted to an abusive relationship with Cid out of guilt for "ruining" his dreams.
Breakdown: Victim of an Abusive Relationship (with a Playable Character!).
Lucretia Crescent. Lucretia is a scientist who decided (possibly under pressure from her romantic partner) that the best way to test the effects of strange alien cells on human life would be to inject the cells into herself and her fetus whilst pregnant. SCIENTIFIC METHOD FTW! In doing so, she gave birth to the video game's villain, Sephiroth, and later attempted to commit suicide based on her regrets over the whole "inject myself and my baby with weird alien cells to see what happens" project. (When suicide doesn't take, she seals herself off in a crystal. Because.) Lucretia serves as a motivating unrequited love interest slash revenge motivator for playable character Vincent.
Breakdown: Dead-ish, Revenge Motivator.
Speaking of mothers...
Jenova. Jenova is an alien life-form who is dead-ish and may or may not have a consciousness. The main villain, Sephiroth, believes her to be his mother (due in part to the genetic link between them as a result of the aforementioned intrauterine scientific experiments inflicted on Sephiroth before he was born) and uses Jenova as an oedipal or (for simplicity's sake here) maternal motivator: he plans to take over the planet and rule as a god on behalf of his mother.
Breakdown: Dead-ish, Maternal Motivator.
Ifalna. Ifalna is Aeris' mother. She dies when Aeris is a child, in an escape attempt in which she places Aeris out of the reach of Shinra and in the arms of Elymra.
Elmyra. Elmyra is a war widow and Aeris' adopted mother. She finds Aeris and a wounded Ifalna at the local train station while waiting there for her absent husband (who is away at war). After Aeris joins the party, Elmyra agrees to take in Marlene, since she is in need of looking after (what with Barret and Tifa, her former caretakers, also traveling with you). Elmyra and Marlene spend most of the rest of the game locked in a cupboard and acting as implied hostages.
Breakdown: Caretaker, Hostage.
Cloud's Mother. Cloud's mother has no name and was killed when Sephiroth torched the town.
Breakdown: Dead, Nameless, Maternal / Revenge Motivator.
Red's Mother. Playable Character Red XIII (or Nanaki, which is his real name) is very proud of his mother. His mother is the hero of his tribe, and he believes his father to be a coward who abandoned her in a time of need. A mandatory side-quest for Red involves the revelation that his father was a hero as well, and after that Red proudly styles himself the "son of Seto", his father. But we never, ever learn the name of his brave mother.
Breakdown: Dead, Nameless, Maternal Motivator.
Scarlet. Scarlet is the only high-level female Shinra employee that we see in-game. She is head of the company's weapon development program and is a sadistic low-level villain. Despite the fact that Scarlet is competent with a gun, and despite the fact that Tifa is a knuckle fighter, the two women end up in a "slap fight" over the course of the game. As part of her professional business attire, Scarlet wears an evening dress that sports Absolute Cleavage.
Breakdown: What is this I don't even. (Also, Presumed Dead. Because villain.)
...and I'm pretty sure that's every major and semi-major female character in the game. For what it's worth.
And just to contrast, here is a list of all the male characters in FF7 who do not die, are not threatened with rape, and do not serve as a motivating revenge/protection factor for other playable characters:
So if I've counted correctly, that gives us:
Total: 14 / Playable: 3 (permanently drops to 2 once Aeris dies)
Victim of an Abusive Relationship: 1
Almost Raped: 4
Protection / Revenge / Maternal Motivator: 7
Slap Fight: 1
Total: 21 / Playable: 6
Dead: 5 (+2 if we count Biggs and Wedge)
Victim of an Abusive Relationship: 0
Almost Raped: 1*
Protection / Revenge / Paternal Motivator: 3 (if we count Seto, Bugenhagen, and Mr. Lockheart)
Slap Fight: 0
Final Tally: Fewer women, fewer playable women, more dead women, more nameless women, more women victims in an abusive relationship, more women almost raped, more women used as motivational objects, more female slap fights. The women swept every single category while still being in shorter supply. More importantly, there is no woman in Final Fantasy 7 who doesn't fit in at least one of these problematic buckets -- the closest thing we have to a not-fridged not-threatened-with-rape female character in the game is freakin' Scarlet whose neckline comes down to her navel. This is a problem.
I feel like I need to repeat here that I like Final Fantasy 7. I really do. But I also think it's valuable to point out that every female playable character is a love interest, than every female playable character is threatened with rape over the course of the game, and that the two mandatory female playable characters leave the party for large swaths of the game because of Dead or Nursemaid. No male playable character is permanently struck from the party roles, and no male playable character decides that saving the ENTIRE WORLD is less important than the admittedly-otherwise-noble choice to take care of an invalid patient who is otherwise in very capable and caring hands.
It's also worth pointing out, I think, that for all the game's interest in mothers and motherhood, none of the mothers really get a lot of screentime for themselves. Jenova is supposed to be the driving villain behind the scenes, but she's largely upstaged by the much more visible Sephiroth. (Who, yes, may be more correctly characterized as the consciousness of Sephiroth placed in a manifestation of Jenova through the magic of cloning technology, but the point remains that you're facing off against someone who at the very least looks like Sephiroth.) Ifalna and Red's mother and Cloud's mother are all spoken of highly when they come up, but despite the high praise and the motivation to revenge their loss or achieve their greatness or realize their heritage, their names still don't come up much (or in some cases at all!) in the game text as a whole. Elmyra, despite being Aeris' mother and the caretaker of Barret's adopted daughter, isn't even visitable for most of the game -- outside of a few brief reminders that she's safe and/or a hostage, the player might well forget she even exists.
These things don't make a game Objectively Bad (though they may well make someone decide that the game is not for them). But they are part of a larger cultural trend that women's importance is defined as relational to someone else, usually male. A woman, our culture tells us, isn't important for what she does so much as for her effect on others. Women motivate men to avenge their deaths, or to fight for their love, or to protect them from harm. Women exist to be threatened and kidnapped and almost-raped so that men can swoop in at the last minute in order to save them, kill the villain, and ultimately save the day.
It's more obvious when it's early-era Princess Peach or current-era Paula or whatever other Obvious Damsel you want to insert. But that doesn't mean it's less of a trend in deeper, more thoughtful games like Final Fantasy 7 where -- at the end of the day -- we still have female player characters threatened with rape and side-lined out of the party in ways that never quite seem to happen to the male player characters.
* After much thought, I came back and decided to strike through Cloud's name from the list of not-almost-raped and to add a 1 to the appropriate tally row for male characters who are almost-raped. The reason for this being that in the same sequence where Aeris and Tifa are threatened with rape in Don Corneo's mansion, so too is Cloud. However, this example is ... complicated because the game seems to stress that Cloud is only in danger of being raped because the men in the mansion believe Cloud to be female. In fact, there's a whole side-quest that involves Cloud dressing up to look as female as possible in order that he may gain admission to the Mansion Of Guys Who Rape Women.
So while Cloud is a male character threatened with rape, he is only threatened with rape when he pretends to be a female character. Which makes the incident difficult to classify.